Saturday, March 20, 2010

French writer sued for using real life setting in latest murdery mystery

This week there were news reports that French crime writer Lalie Walker is being sued by Village d'Orsel, the business which runs the iconic Marché Saint Pierre store in Paris; a 60-year-old landmark store in the Montmartre district, best known for its extensive selection of fabrics and low prices.

Walker set her latest novel, AUX MALHEURS DES DAMES (The misfortunes of the ladies), in the real life store. But the owners are not happy with Walker's tale of a crazed killer operating amongst the fabrics, even though the author is reported as saying she thought she was paying a nostalgic tribute to the "much-loved Parisian landmark".

According to the Guardian newspaper, Village d'Orsel is demanding €2m (£1.8m) in damages, arguing that certain passages in Walker's fictional depiction of a business rocked by threats, voodoo and staff abductions are defamatory. "No one can have anything to do with or talk about the Marché Saint Pierre without the authorization of the owner and the director," Robert Gabby, the store's director, told the website Rue89. "It's defamation."

The ex-lawyer in me is not quite sure what to think about all this - not being as familiar with French defamation law as I am with our New Zealand/Australian/UK common law versions. I'm not sure if the owners would have to show that the portrayal in the fictional book would have to cause 'right-thinking members of society' to now have a lower opinion of the real-life store, or expose the store to hatred, ridicule or contempt. And then, even if that were so, whether or how much real damage was actually done to its reputation.

It would seem strange for writers to not be able to use famous real life places as the settings for their books, for fear of being sued (if the owners didn't like the fact that in a fictional world something 'negative' was portrayed as happening there). How far would you draw the bow? As has been noted elsewhere, the Louvre didn't sue Dan Brown for setting a murder in THE DAVINCI CODE there. Would every book, film, or TV show that has ever set a murder in or around Central Park be liable for defaming what in real life can be a very pleasant place to wander? What about the thousands of other famous settings - no murders set in the Globe Theatre please, the tourists might not want to go there anymore?

But by the same token, I guess it could be argued that Walker could have just fictionalised the store under a different name? But where should you draw the line between fictionalising real life settings, and just using the real life ones?

In any case, I can't imagine the publicity is hurting either party (well, Village d'Orsel's actions might actually lower their reputation in the eyes of 'right-thinking' members of society more than anything Walker wrote in her book, but that's a whole 'nother matter), although I would guess Walker could do without the stress of legal proceedings. Hopefully the news story will help her sell some more books, in case she needs extra funds for legal fees.
That's the problem with such cases - they can just end up being a financial (as well as emotional) drain on parties involved, even if they prove in the end to have been a bit ridiculous.

You can read the full Guardian article here (hat tip to Bookman Beattie for the heads-up).

What do you think of Village d'Orsel's actions? Of Walkers choice to use an iconic real life store in her murder mystery book? Thoughts and comments welcome.


  1. The words of Robert Gabby quoted above are ridiculous, so all-encompassing is his embargo on anyone talking about the store. If matters were as he suggests, it would bar anyone from so much as saying they were going to do some shopping there or recommending the quality of its merchandise. I surmise that a pivotal point in the case would be whether an argument could be made that Lalie Walker (new to me) intended readers to think that such goings-on actually occur at the store and/or that the owner is complicit in them -- and I can't see that case being sustained in a court of law! Mind you, if the novel is marketed in the UK, Village d'Orsel could sue in the British courts, and given the ludicrous nature of defamation proceedings there, I think anything may be possible. But at bottom I suspect that the company has made a fool of itself.

  2. They are daft, and as Philip said, are making fools of themselves.

    I use real cafes in my books and real places, and the owners are pretty chuffed to have even got a mention (haven't got any free coffees from it, by the way, in case you're thinking the mentions were 'paid' for (-: )

    Also, readers love to see real businesses they know mentioned in books, it makes them instantly relate to the characters. For this business to turn around and sue the author is a dumb move. If I was them I'd be capitalising on it in different ways - I'd be selling the book in store and have a big poster in the window "Scene of Lalie Walker's book!"

  3. I assumed that the statement you see in the headers of lots of novels covers this kind of eventuality?

    "This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental."

    If authors cannot use real places fictitiously for fear of being sued, its going make fiction really fictional!